Connect to share and comment

Let's not fight. We're Indonesians, after all.

The country's first presidential debate devolves into a wild free-for-all of brutal politeness.

 The presidential campaign in general has been lackluster, partly because opinion polls regularly show Yudhoyono laps ahead of the others.

But if the current climate in Iran is any indication, a lively debate could have far reaching implications. Presidential debates in the United States and elsewhere have often changed the course of a stagnant campaign.

Yudhoyono is not infallible. Though he is admired for his pensive demeanor, he is also considered slow in making important decisions – hence Kalla’s campaign slogan, “Faster and Better.”

Yudhoyono is also under pressure for not resolving a three year old un-natural disaster that has displaced tens of thousands of people in East Java. In 2006, a drilling company punctured the earth, giving birth to a mud volcano that spreads daily. The company is indirectly controlled by Yudhoyono’s minister of people’s welfare Aburizal Bakrie – an irony everyone sees.

But when the mud disaster came up in the debate last night, neither Sukarnoputri nor Kalla took the opportunity to chide the president for his lack of action. Kalla instead rambled about infrastructure.

Sukarnoputri, who is the daughter of Sukarno, a founding father who helped defeat the Dutch, inexplicably pumped her first and yelled, “independence!” at the end of her ambling valediction.

And so it remains a mystery as to where each candidate stands on crucial issues like the economy, poverty alleviation, corruption, the environment and human rights.

During the campaign so far, the most heated exchanges have been over the meaning of “neo-liberalism,” a classification flung at Yudhoyono and his running mate Boediono, an independent economist. The candidates also spent a week justifying their vast stores of personal wealth.

“It is difficult to know where anyone stands,” said Qodari. “The economy is getting more attention from voters. But the campaigns are fighting over who is a neo-liberal. I don’t see how that can impact anyone. Most voters don’t understand what the term even means.”

The country’s electoral commission has assigned itself the difficult task of forcing candidates and voters to consider relevant issues. Before parliamentary elections in April, the commission tried to ban political rallies, an election staple, because they are rarely used to clarify stances and are really just a competition to see who can pay the most people to attend.

Now, it is the commission’s hope that the series of U.S.-style, televised, presidential debates, each one focused on a particular issue, will help.

The candidates took a beating in the morning papers for their “boring” performances on Thursday. Fortunately they have four more opportunities before the July 9 election.

Indonesian democracy marches on.

More on democracy in Indonesia:

Indonesia waits as votes are counted

Indonesia's next president?

A murder trial verdict provides little closure